Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Mason was having an especially rough day at work. In the middle of the afternoon, he stepped into the break room, where a conversation among his coworkers was underway.
"And these idiots …"
Mason figured out right away that they were discussing some upcoming changes at his company, changes that many employees were not happy about. He moved closer to the group, and two of his coworkers stepped aside to welcome him into the circle.
The conversation continued. One of the employees closed the door. The voices got louder at that point. Certain members of the management team were identified as being the decision-makers behind the changes and were described in disparaging terms. A few coworkers, who reportedly supported the changes, were also discussed.
Mason hadn't actually had much time to think about the new directives from management. He had been too busy finishing a project. He also has a chronic condition, and some days he has to work a little slower, and a little longer, to stay on top of his responsibilities. This had been a week of those days.
At one point in the conversation, Mason jumped in with his own story about something their manager had said recently about the upcoming changes. This added fuel to the fire, and another employee launched into additional criticism of management, accompanied by some not-very-well-chosen words. Mason ended up saying something about his boss that he really didn't mean, and certainly wouldn't want attributed to him.
Negative venting with coworkers feels good. Temporarily.
Mason had felt an initial rush of energy when he and his coworkers were having this heated discussion. Wow, on a bad day it sure felt good to vent. But when he got back to his desk, he was feeling anything but energized. Instead, he felt physically drained. A symptom of his chronic condition that had been bothering him earlier felt more intense. Mason was also emotionally drained-all that anger had taken a lot out of him. He also felt guilty for the things he had heard and clearly agreed with, as well as what he had said. Needless to say, the rest of the afternoon wasn't as productive as he had hoped it would be.
Reflecting on what happened
That evening, Mason talked to his wife, Sarah, about what had happened. They talked about how whenever he feels tired, and symptomatic, and under pressure, this sets him up for falling into negative thinking. "I knew I was not in a good space," Mason said. "I should have grabbed my coffee and immediately walked out. But instead, I stayed and took a swim in all that toxicity."
"Don't criticize yourself," Sarah said. "But let's talk about what you can do to avoid this happening in the future, okay?"
What about you? Do you find yourself falling into the complaining and backbiting that all too often find their way into the workplace? If you are also living with a chronic condition, taking part in this negativity can leave you feeling like Mason, physically and emotionally depleted. It can take a toll on your wellness that you don't need-but it's avoidable.
Here are some ideas for protecting yourself from workplace negativity:
Monitor yourself. Like Mason, you most likely know when you are not feeling your best. So when you know you're especially vulnerable to the negativity around you, consider what you need to do to not get caught up in it. Is this a day to be cordial to your coworkers but also to keep your head down and focus on your work?
Attitude of gratitude. Here's an idea to help you maintain your positivity. Starting the day being mindful of something you are grateful for can set you up for having a better day, and to be less susceptible to indulging in negative conversations. When you're feeling good about life, there just isn't any space for toxicity in any form.
Consider the consequences. As Mason was reminded, getting caught up in workplace negativity has consequences-especially on a day when you're not feeling well. When you're tempted to let loose your frustrations in a conversation with your coworkers, take a step back and ask yourself if this is going to lead to a place you don't want to be. After all, every action has a consequence. Being aware of consequences can be all the motivation you need to just say no.
Take the high road. Try to make it your personal mission to stay positive at work. Keep your smile going. When a coworker complains about something, listen-but instead of adding fuel to the fire, point out what's going well. Identify a possibility for the future, rather than an impending catastrophe. This will result in your coworkers seeing you as someone they can trust-a leader and not a follower. And talking with you will be viewed as a bright spot in the day. Negativity is infectious, but so is positivity.
When cornered, just step away. It's inevitable that you may suddenly find yourself in a conversation with one or more anger-spewing coworkers or, like Mason, be in the break room with a group that's itching for a revolution. When you are, politely exit. You can say something like, "Sorry to hear about this, but I need to get something finished. I'll follow up with you later." Or, "Sorry I can't hang out right now, but I'm trying to finish my work so I can get home to my kids." This helps your coworker to feel heard without further exposure for you. Protect yourself when you need to by gently but firmly heading for the exit.
If you need to vent, do it outside of the workplace. It's only normal to need to have a good vent once in a while. But as Mason experienced, the workplace is not the best place to vent. Sit down with your partner, or a friend or other family member. Ask their permission to let you have a good vent about what's going on at work. Let them know you don't need a solution, you just need to be heard. And then let it loose. If they have an objective perspective, also be open to listening.
Commit to your priorities. What do you most want to accomplish at your job? Your priorities probably include: Doing the best work possible. Getting regular raises and maybe even a promotion to provide as much quality of life as you can for yourself and anyone you are responsible for. Being viewed as a reliable team member by your coworkers. You may have some additional priorities as well. If you stay focused on your priorities, each and every day, you will also be less susceptible to the toxic conversations. Keeping your priorities front and center can be especially important on a day when you aren't feeling your best.
You, your job, and workplace negativity. Indulging in negativity not only doesn't benefit you, but it affects your physical and emotional wellness. Remember that staying above the negativity is another way to take good care of yourself!
How do you deal with negative colleagues where you work? Share your experiences and advice by adding a comment below.